LEADING SCHOOLS THROUGH A GLOBAL PANDEMIC
Loss. A word that, in many ways, captures the year 2020. While children have been less impacted by the health consequences of COVID-19, they have not escaped loss. Children have lost family members, stability, their emotional well-being, and months of schooling.
School closures have been the main defense in battling the pandemic. As the virus spread, education systems rushed to implement remote learning solutions to combat learning losses. While these efforts have been commendable, large gaps exist in monitoring the effectiveness and usage of these strategies.
While children need schools, and schools need leaders, leaders also need support, and often they have nobody to turn to. So far in the pandemic, we have supported 1700 leaders across seven countries, impacting over 222,500 students, and found that school leaders took ownership and went above and beyond their roles to support their student communities. We heard stories of compassion, resilience, creativity, and collaboration.
There is much that we have lost over the past year that we can never get. However, we must attempt to recover what we can. This learning capture is an attempt to document insights from students, parents, school leaders, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers and reimagine the leadership it will take to make this happen.
Changing contours of a School Leader’s Role
School leaders are like actors in a play where the story, the script, and costumes have all changed mid-performance due to the pandemic, and they are on stage improvising to adjust to their new role. Yet, very few school leaders have thorough training and support for their role, and even fewer have been given clear guidelines on their expectations through disaster response and recovery. Despite daunting circumstances, we have seen incredibly inspiring school leaders acting to ensure the safety and well-being of families.
Through our partner organizations, we reached out to school leaders across India, Indonesia, Kenya, and Malaysia to understand their response to the early days of the pandemic. These voices speak of the possibilities that come with reimagining the role of a school leader.
"Our immediate thought was - how are we going to teach online without children actually around us? We were used to children reacting to us!"
(paraphrased) As a school leader, in the initial days nothing was easy and it was all about staying afloat. Trying to connect with others was key - nobody had the answer, unprecedented. But we knew somehow it had to continue - even though I wasn’t tech-savvy. In the past, one learned about the quick fixes and moved on, but this was a different ball game. But slowly, we spoke to experts, to people and learnt about new possibilities. We went to zoom, it seemed like there was growing familiarity with it, it was easy, and even though there was a lot of negative feedback initially, we decided we had to start somewhere and eventually we saw success. Eternally thankful to everyone who came forward and it’s been a journey since then.
Sangeeta Bhattacharya, School Leader
St. Joseph's High School, India
As school leaders adapted to these changes, GSL Partners also had to pivot their programs to support school leaders as they navigated strategic and operational challenges. While some programs were successful in creating short-term positive impact, given the complex nature of these challenges, gaps continue to persist.
As we look to prepare for another year of uncertainty, we are determined to not lose out on the lessons learned through the early days of the pandemic. We asked our partners how they saw the role of a school leader evolve in the face of crisis management. Here are some of their reflections.
as Community Leaders:
Communities across countries turned to their school leaders to understand the implications of the crisis on learning. School leaders were required to take on front-line roles in crisis management - a role they were previously unprepared to take on. Our partners witnessed school leaders quickly move outside previously determined boundaries of their role to support parents and students.
School Leaders as
One of the pandemic’s biggest impacts was on how it changed the fabric of a school as an institution. Previously used techniques were put to the test, and school leaders were faced with organizational challenges across areas of pedagogical support, managing resources, team development, and finances. Through this period, our partners reported creative and innovative ways in which school leaders designed solutions to problems.
While most schools in our partner countries sparingly used technology in the early days, as months passed and with the support of our partners, school leaders began inching towards tech-based solutions. Most school leaders, despite being first-time users themselves, set up spaces for teachers and parents to embrace online teaching strategies. Partners soon observed school leaders being advocates for online learning as a way to ensure continued student learning and support.
as Enablers of Gender Equity:
While school leaders were forced to think of reimagining ways to ensure continued learning, they also faced challenges that were exacerbated by the pandemic. The continued education of girls was identified as a huge challenge, especially by our India and Kenya partners. To address this, school leaders conducted parent interviews to identify cultural barriers, led workshops for parents to build awareness about the 'traps' that came with the pandemic, and worked with teachers to ensure data-driven decisions were made to support girls. Project Kanya was born as a result of these efforts.
Changing Contours of a School Leader's Role: Partner Perspectives
*Click on the icons to learn more
Exploring a community-centered, collaborative approach to school leadership
Just as learning extends beyond the four walls of a classroom, the role of the school leader extends beyond the confines of the school building. School leaders form an important layer in the education system, a layer that can motivate agents to ensure teachers, students, and families are connected to plans and policies made by education officials.
At the peak of the pandemic, we saw examples of radical collaboration between parent communities and school leaders to address both education as well as systemic challenges. Navigating these challenges together opened up new ways to ‘see’ one another; pushing previously held beliefs of the ‘role of the parent’ and the ‘role of the school leader’. These voices speak to that journey.
"We received a lot of support in the form of hope and motivation from our teachers and school principal. That to me was very important to receive."
(paraphrased) There was a lot of confusion initially - we are all used to studying with books, with a teacher in front of us with some sort of human connection. We had questions like what about exams, how will teachers help us etc. But because of technology that was slowly made possible - we saw teachers effectively clearing our doubts online. When the pandemic hit, we were scared - we were all really excited to go to 10th std (grade) and none of that was going to happen. But as the year progressed, we were able to continue what we were supposed to do.
Chaitanya Harikrishna, Student
St. Joseph's High School, India
Will a crisis force us to rethink school leadership?
When school systems make attempts to build school leadership, it usually takes one of two forms - far or fast. Far is sending school leaders to a well-regarded school system, Finland, Singapore, or Australia, to pick up a best practice that is not at all context relevant. Or conversely flying people from these countries in. If resources are really limited, systems copy the structures of well-regarded school systems, keeping the 'fancy' elements and frameworks while losing the substance. Fast is sitting all the leaders into one huge training workshop that lasts 2-3 days once per year and thinking the job is done.
This just won’t work.
Wading through the disruption of the pandemic, we set out to observe and understand the changing roles of school leaders. We engaged deeply with policymakers, researchers, and practitioners to understand and rethink the role of school leadership, especially in the context of a crisis. We also used these insights to design two programs targeting school recovery and gender inequity.
“Where is the evidence we need to form policies around school leadership? In the “what-works” clearing houses, School Leadership is not a heading.”
Dr. Paula Cordeiro
VP of Education, Edify
Dean, School of Education and Leadership Sciences, University of San Diego
We developed a set of online materials for school leaders focussed on school reopening and recovery. The online modules were used in Peru, Uganda, Nigeria, and the Philippines. We have seen our work with leaders lead to improvements in school quality and student learning.
Bringing Forth a New Paradigm of
This learning capture makes clear the need for radical collaboration to address the gaps that have emerged this pandemic year. From addressing learning loss to social-emotional needs to gender inequity, the reimagination of schooling is complex. As learning journeys for school children change, so will the learning journeys of school leaders. We must work to increase the capacity of those who lead schools to further mobilize the people and resources required to meet the future needs of learners around the world.
At Global School Leaders we intend to take the insights captured here and broaden our support to partners across low- and middle-income countries. We see this learning capture as a starting point to thoughtful conversations about the role school leaders play in transforming schools and learning outcomes.
Designed in collaboration with RK Naidu